After providing feedback on thousands of submissions to students in Spanish, Portuguese, French and Mandarin and English, I have identified four key errors that account for 80% of errors that Native-English speakers have when speaking other languages.
As deeply ingrained as these habits are, they’re not hard to fix; it’s just a question of awareness. Develop a physical awareness of your errors, and you will eventually phase them out.
In this post, I will review these four errors and provide tips for developing your awareness of them to avoid sounding like a foreigner.
There are three general types of pronunciation errors:
- The sound does not exist in your native-language.
- The sound does exist in your native-language; you are just saying the wrong sound. (for more on this, check out The Virtues of Illiteracy).
- The sound exists but the pronunciation is altered.
The third error is what we will address in this post. To summarize, the four errors are as follows:
- Rounding on the /u/ vowel
- Diphthongizing the /e/ and /o/ vowels
- Reducing vowels on unstressed syllables.
- R-coloring and L-coloring
Let’s look at each one in detail.
As slight as this difference may seem, rounding makes a significant acoustic difference. In English, we round our lips when a word ends with a /u/ sound, such as “who, two, knew, hue, chew, etc.” Because we round so often, the tendency carries over to other languages and causes us to mispronounce words.
For example, take these non-English words:
- tú – Spanish for “you”
- nous – French for “us”
- rua – Portuguese for “street”
- shu (书) – Mandarin for “book”
Anyone who is familiar with any of these languages will recognize this as an English-speaker accent.
How to fix It
The first step is to build a physical awareness of vowel rounding. Say the words “few” and “knew” in front of a mirror and watch how your lips move. Your lips should be completely relaxed and motionless when saying the /u/ vowel.
Practice alternating between a rounded and unrounded /u/ and you will start to notice the difference.
To review, a vowel sound (as opposed to a vowel script)is created when you let voiced air flow out from your mouth unobstructed.
The main thing that distinguishes one vowel sound from the next is the position of your tongue within your mouth.
If you alternate between the sounds “oooo” and “aaahhh”, you will notice that the only thing moving is your tongue, and perhaps the jaw as well to aid the tongue.
A Diphthong is when you transition from one vowel to the next. In other words, a diphthong is tongue movement.
For whatever reason, we always move our tongues upwards in English when saying the /e/ vowel, as in the word say and when saying the /o/ vowel, as in the word no.
So even though we think of it as one vowel sound, we are actually making two sounds. To show this, I take the words say and no.
In other languages, the /e/ and /o/ are not necessarily diphthongized. Listen to the following Spanish words and notice how you hear ONLY one vowel sound, i.e. it’s NOT diphthongized:
How to fix it
The trick here is to build awareness of tongue movement.
Alternate between diphthongized and single vowel word vowel pronunciations as I do in the audio below to develop an awareness of this tongue movement.
Once you figure it out physically and acoustically, focus on not making this mistake when speaking your foreign language.
Also, note how the /o/ not only diphthongizes but rounds at the end as well. This is because, when diphthongizing the /o/, we are approaching the /u/, which as explained above, we have a tendency to round.
Speech (and music) can be broken down rhythmically into stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, if you say the word “America”, the “me” syllable will be more stressed than the other three – a – ME – ri – ca.
Now alternate between the sounds “ah” and “uh” and notice how the “ah” just seems like more work. For “ah” you have to open your jaw and tongue, whereas for “uh,” your tongue and jaw are already kind of there naturally when its in the rest position.
Same deal with the “eee” sound and the short “i’ sound in the word “bit”. This “ih” vowel from “bit” is closer to the home base and thus takes less effort to say.
In English, we have a tendency to go back to home base on unstressed syllables. Take the word “America” again, for example.
What you’re really saying is: uh – ME – rih – kuh. What would have otherwise been clear /a/ and /i/ vowels have been “reduced” to something easier.
It’s cool being tongue-lazy in English, but that ‘ish don’t fly in other languages. This is a big problem for Native-English speakers learning Spanish.
In Spanish, there are only five vowels, and these vowels are ALWAYS the exact same whether stressed or unstressed.
How to Fix It
Know your vowels in your target language and focus on hitting them clearly ALL the time. It helps to exaggerate your pronunciation and enunciate as much as possible when starting off.
Because reducing is more comfortable, NOT reducing is actually going to be physically tiring at the beginning. Imagine having a conversation in which you must enunciate every single syllable with exaggerated mouth movements.
After some time, your mouth will get fatigued because it’s doing more movement than it’s used to.
This is how it should always feel when starting off in a new language. Indeed, the reason I teach songs is so students can build the muscular strength and comfort faster by singing all the time.
In North-American English, vowels are sometimes altered when followed by an “r” or “l”. The alteration is caused by the scrunching up of the back of the tongue.
This effect on the vowel is called “coloring,” and with a few exceptions, coloring not exist in other languages, so color vowels in you target language and your foreignness will be painfully obvious to anyone listening.
As an English speaker, you may have a STRONG tendency to replace the foreign ‘R’ with the English /ɹ/ sound. Even more important, these are also the MOST common consonant speech sounds in the language.
Doing this wrong is perhaps the biggest giveaway of whether you have a bad accent. To prevent you from developing this habit, we use an arbitrary symbol – /&/ – to represent the alveolar tap.
How to Fix It
For the “r”, you will do this when the other language has a different “rhotic” sound. If you are doing this, it’s probably because you have yet to learn how to articulate the proper rhotic sound of that language.
Of course, the final solution is just to learn that language’s “r” sound, but if you have yet to master the new sound, just drop the “r” all together in the meantime.
Compare the difference in sound when you simply abstain for r-coloring. In the audio files below, I first say the foreign language word, then an r-colored version, than a dropped r version.
Fixing the Habits
Now that you have a basic awareness of your biggest English-speaker tendencies, your next task is to build a habit of NOT committing them.
The only way to build habits is through lots of repetition, especially when you’re talking about reversing a previous habit.
In my Flow Series courses, you learn song lyrics with a perfect accent. Each time you sing any of the song lyrics you learn, you build the motor habits needed to speak your target language.
If you already have a habit of singing songs all the time, you can easily get your reps in by adding these Flow songs to your repertoire. Then you can sing your way to an 80% improvement in your accent!
Til’ next time, Keep on Flowin’!